Let Your Life Speak: When Way Closes, Way Will Open

A moment ago, I spoke about the dream for a full-time music director here at UUCA, which would represent a first (as I understand it) in this congregation’s long history. We’ve never had a full-time music director before. To make this happen would truly be a dream come true. And don’t we have a lot of dreams for this congregation? Don’t we have a lot of dreams for ourselves, our careers, and our relationships? Dreams for our community and dreams for the larger world? Of course. This is how we move forward in life, with energy and intentionality. We lift up our eyes, we cast a vision, and we pursue it. We see in our mind’s eye what is possible, we imagine the way forward, and then we follow up with careful planning and implementation. This is what we do, and need to do. But there is something to acknowledge here: the plain fact that not all dreams come true. Some visions just aren’t feasible. Sometimes what we imagine is pure figment, pure smoke and mirrors. Henry David Thoreau once said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” But woe to the person whose castle in the air is so full of illusion that foundation-building is nothing but frustration. Woe to that person. One tries as hard as one can, and one fails, and the result is a feeling of shame and despair, burnout and depression. That’s what happens. Some dreams come true, and some don’t, or can’t. This is what I want to talk about today, in this part of our sermon series on the issue of life purpose and life mission. Today I draw on chapters three and four in Parker Palmer’s wonderful book Let Your Life Speak, and they talk about how our lives speak as much through failure and despair as through fulfillment and success. We can learn from our personal strengths and talents, but we can also learn from our inabilities and limits. Some dreams are ours to make real, and some are not-and in this we find the meaning of our lives. I want to begin with a quote from Parker Palmer. He writes, “Like many middle-class Americans, especially those who are white and male, I was raised in a subculture that insisted I could do anything I wanted to, be anything I wanted to be, if I were willing to make the effort. […] My troubles began, of course, when I started to slam into my limitations, especially in the form of failure. I can still touch the shame I felt when, in the summer before I started graduate school at Berkeley, I experienced my first serious comeuppance: I was fired from my research assistantship in sociology. Having been a golden boy through grade school, high school, and college, I was devastated by this sudden turn of fate. […] My sense of identity, and my concept of the universe, crumbled around my feet for the first, but not the last, time. What had happened to my limitless self in a limitless world?” This is what Parker Palmer says, and I really resonate with it. Perhaps you do as well. As a white middle-class male, I know the fiction and false dream of limitlessness he’s talking about, the delusion that I can be anything I want to be if only I work hard enough. And yet, this false dream is larger than gender identity, and it is larger than class identity. It is as American as rugged individualism; it is as Unitarian as the classic 19th century theology of “unlimited social progress” and “onwards and upwards forever”; it is as modern as our consumer culture; it is as pervasive and widespread as the myth of endless economic and technological expansion. In different ways-as individuals and families, as communities and countries and world-we all struggle with the fiction and false dream of limitlessness. It is a defining struggle of our world today. For myself, as for Parker Palmer, the first time this struggle hit home was in college. I can still feel the pain of slamming into my own personal limitations. I emerged from high school as Student Council President, in the academic top ten of my class, and founding nerd or geek or both of a group called the “I. Q. Booster Club.” I was also a doctor’s son. It was the only career path I had known all my life, and it was simply unimaginable to me that I could follow any other-even though, in another compartment of my brain, I wondered about what it would like to be a minister. But this is what we do-we compartmentalize; we experience a balkanization of the brain; the different parts don’t talk to each other. So I entered college with the purpose of going to medical school. And why not? The sky was the limit! Blithely and without any concern in the world, I signed up for the harder science classes-honors chemistry and honors calculus-to start off with a bang. But there was no bang. It was all bust. It ate my lunch. All my overachieving got me nowhere. My head couldn’t follow the professors; my head couldn’t follow the numbers or the experimental protocols. Other students seemed to be understanding just fine, but I wasn’t understanding a thing, and this is where my perfectionism made my life a living hell. The one comfort in this time was my discovery of the used book store in town, which I would go to frequently just to keep moving even as I felt myself slipping into a sense of deepest shame and worthlessness, even as I felt my sense of identity and world falling apart. And guess what book sections I’d go to, every time? Philosophy. Psychology. Religion. Art. Poetry. The evidence of my true calling was right before my eyes, but all that was in my heart was pain. One day I called my dad, crying. I couldn’t do it anymore. I needed to give up the medical school dream. He heard me and was kind, although from that day on our relationship changed. I wasn’t going to carry his dream forward; and whether or not this disturbed him wasn’t as important as how I felt about it. I had failed. Everything was up in the air. I found myself on a long and winding road, where I changed majors about five or six times, ending up (finally) with philosophy, then graduate school in philosophy, then teaching college. Things got better, of course, but I can still touch the original shame. I had bought into my own version of the fiction of limitlessness completely and totally-the fiction that the world is mine on my own terms if I just work hard; and if I don’t get the world, then I didn’t work hard enough, I didn’t do something enough, so it’s my fault and I ought to be ashamed. This is the false dream I had bought into, totally and completely. There it is. And once again, there are so many other ways of buying in to it. The working wife and mother who aspires to “supermom” status. The justice-loving person who feels compelled to tackle every existing and potential social ill. The nation which uses nonrenewable earth resources unsustainably, like there’s no tomorrow. Each represents a case of buying into the false dream of limitlessness. Each represents a castle in the air that can have no firm foundation, no matter how hard people try to build it. And then there is this-the way in which congregations can buy into the false dream of limitlessness. Consider what this looks like. It is first of all bolstered by the hard reality of the needs of this world, which are endless. The needs of newcomers and regulars; the needs of various age and lifestage identities like infants, children, youth, young adults, young parents, parents of children and teens, empty-nesters, divorcees, career transitioners, widows, the elderly, and the dying; and then the needs of various theological or social identities like theists, atheists, Pagans, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, gays, straights, whites, blacks, and on and on. All these needs, and so many others–and don’t tell me that the needs of one aren’t as important as those of another. Don’t tell me that the needs of the elderly aren’t as important as those of teens. Don’t tell me that the needs of theists aren’t as important as those of atheists. Don’t tell me that the needs of gays and lesbians aren’t as important as those of straight people. Don’t tell me that! How could you tell me that? The needs are all equally deep and equally important. So how do we decide between them? How can we serve one without serving all? When this is the paradigm we are stuck in-the paradigm of the needs-oriented congregation-there is only one real direction we can take: to make ourselves available to every call for action, even as resources are limited. To go in all directions at once. To resist all efforts to focus, or prioritize, because such efforts feel unkind. Just can’t say NO. Just can’t say LATER. There must be a response to every need, and it’s got to happen now. Every need, entitled to an instant response. And in the end, here is where we are if as a congregation we have bought into this false dream of limitlessness. Here it is. Our congregational reality will ironically be one of scarcity. You would think otherwise, but no. It’s because we may accomplish spectacular things, but that won’t matter, because we can always point to a need that has not yet been met, and so there is always an excuse to chastise ourselves, always an excuse to feel guilty. Scarcity and disappointment will characterize our congregational reality, and so will this: internal strife. Different congregational groups all demanding resources on their own terms and timetable, without loyalty to the best interests of the congregation as a whole. Different congregational groups in isolated silos, like different compartments of the brain not talking to each other, oblivious to our Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle of the interdependent web, which applies as much to institutions as to anything else. To this internal strife, add one more consequence of buying into the false dream: all these pressures I’ve been talking about, piling up on the congregation’s key leaders and professional staff. People expecting this group to be available to all needs in an unlimited way. Staffers in particular presumed to be not doing much if an unmet need is spotted-even though all week long they’ve been climbing mountains, putting out forest fires, and doing ten impossible things. But it doesn’t matter. The awareness of something not done colors our perspective of staffers and key leaders, and so, naturally, we want to give them something to keep them busy. That’s what we might do. It hurts when individuals and groups buy into the false dream of limitlessness. I can still touch the shame and depression I felt when I slammed against a personal limitation and realized that I would not go to medical school, I would not fulfill the expectation I’d had for myself for as long as I remember. And I have seen how scarcity and disappointment descend over congregations that try to be all things for all people; I have seen the infighting between groups and the emergence of suspicions and conspiracy-theorizing; I have seen the despair and burnout of staff and key leaders who work in a context like this. I’ve seen it, and perhaps so have you. Some dreams are ours to make real, and some are not. Some are just not possible. But you know what? This world is gracious. We exist in the gracious arms of Life. From everything, we can learn. Revelation is ongoing and dispersed every day, in every moment. Everything can be a guide and a teacher, even and especially the times when dreams die, and we feel exposed, shattered, undone. “Problems come looking for us,” it is said, “exactly because we need their gifts.” Gifts of discernment, gifts of direction, gifts of wisdom. So what can we learn from the experience of buying into false dreams? Listen to what Parker Palmer has to say about this. He says, “The spiritual journey is full of paradoxes. One of them is that the humiliation that brings us down-down to ground on which it is safe to stand and to fall-eventually takes us to a firmer and fuller sense of self. When people ask me how it felt to emerge from depression, I can only give one answer: I felt at home in my own skin, and at home on the face of the earth, for the first time.” That’s what Parker Palmer says, and it suggests three different kinds of specific learnings, the first of which has to do with the nature of the spiritual journey. It is full of paradoxes. Authenticity becoming ours only until we know what it is like to put on other people’s faces. Strength becoming ours only until we have known weakness. A capacity to heal becoming ours only until we have owned our own woundedness. This is spirituality. This is what it is, and so if you find yourself in a place of brokenness today, you are on the path. You are. So don’t give up. Keep on going. The spiritual journey is paradoxical: we learn this, and then we learn something else: that we are human. You would think this is obvious, but we must learn it again and again and again, and the whole process is yet another example of paradox. For we learn again that we are human when we fail in our attempt to be like God. It’s what I went through when I acted on the presumption that I was a limitless self in a limitless world. And congregations go through it too when they try to be all things to all people, when they try to gather two of every kind into their midst like a Noah’s Ark, when they try to do all this because they are driven by the anxious presumption that if any good is going to happen in the world, it must happen through them. They and we try to be like God, and we can do this even if we don’t believe in God. We might not believe, yet this disbelief is powerless in the face of the anxious urgency to act just like the God we don’t believe in. This is what happens. And so, when all our efforts to be God-like fail-and after we are finished beating ourselves up and beating each other up because we fall short of omnipotence and omniscience-we are grounded in the earth of our humanity. We can find a more honest and compassionate way to live. There are many things to learn from buying into false dreams. From falsehood, we learn truth. We learn about the paradoxical nature of spirituality. We are grounded in our humanity. And finally, we discover a different orientation to life. We stop trying to be all things to all people, and what we do instead is root ourselves in the earth of our life and grow organically out of that. No longer do we allow ourselves to be tossed and turned by external expectations or needs. We grow from within and let destiny unfold. We just don’t allow ourselves to get into the scarcity position of having to run faster in order to stand still. What we do allow for is sustainable lives that flow out of present abundance, and we grow and grow out of that. I’m talking about a radical paradigm change. We still dream big dreams-we can’t stop doing this-but we do it in a way that grows out of present strengths. As a congregation, we align what we envision with the abundance that is already here, in terms of generosity and experience and history and passions and leadership and volunteerism. We create what some call an asset map, and we use this map to take us into the future. It also means that we are systematic and intentional about spending only the energy and talents we already have in our service to the world, never allowing the creation of programs and activities to get beyond existing people and energy. We just don’t get the cart before the horse. First things first. Sustainability. And yes, this does mean that some needs might not get met right now. If a great idea lacks a team of several people to champion it, then we have to press “pause” on it. And when we do-when we are talking about a really great idea, serving an important need-we will have to take a deep breath and trust the process. Resist the temptation to be like God and try to do it all NOW. We have to trust in the abundance of this universe, even as we trust it in our own congregation. We flow in the direction of our existing strengths, and strength will take us to strength, strength will take us to strength, if we allow it, if we trust the process. Some dreams are ours to make real, and some are not. No one can make the dream of limitlessness come true. But as for the dream of the authentic spiritual journey, that CAN come true. So can the dream of being fully and deeply human. And so can the dream that each of us as individuals, and this congregation as a whole, come into this world with precious gifts that are ours to give-“integral,” as Parker Palmer says, “to our own nature, coming from a place of organic reality within.” The more we give them, the more there is to give, the more they are renewed. That in particular is the miracle that we can work this day, and every day. That’s it. ** And now I would like to invite this congregation to participate in something special. Please take a look at the “Strengths and Talents Survey” in your order of service. More than 180 of you have already taken this survey on line, and I thank you for that. But to help us create an accurate asset map of this congregation, we need as many people as possible to fill it out. So we are going to give you a few moments to do that in. This can be an opportunity for you to discern where in this congregation you might be able to express a personal passion, or put a particular interest to work. Staff and leaders, for their part, will use this information to develop the volunteer base of our various existing programs or to start new ones, depending on the results. A few final notes before you begin. First, at some point you will receive acknowledgement of your survey-and if it’s seemed like a long time and you have not received any acknowledgement, please contact myself or Chance Hunter, our Director of Welcome Ministries. We don’t want anyone to fall through the cracks. Second, in a few minutes, the ushers will come forward to collect your surveys. If you aren’t done by then, no worries-just hand it to me as you are leaving the sanctuary today. Third and finally: there will be a second collection today, and that will be the one for the regular offering. Just so there’s no confusion…. And now, let the survey begin! Link to Tao Te Ching